Alcohol marketing influences alcohol use and is designed to forge positive relationships between (potential) consumers, brands, and alcohol consumption. As with other consumer goods, alcohol marketing is highly gendered in nature; it targets men, women, and increasingly other genders (i.e. non binary), in different ways, particularly through connotations of femininity and masculinity.
In a recent research programme we explored how alcohol brands target and represent women (see www.equalisenightlifeproject.com) who consume alcohol, and how this might influence their identity-making and relationships with alcohol. The research also examined how marketing might establish gendered social norms around drinking.
Whilst it is important to explore marketing influence on people who consume alcohol – and most research in this area has focused on that – it is also important that the impact of marketing on individuals who do not drink due to harmful or problematic use, or who may be vulnerable to alcohol harms, is also considered.
However, to date there is limited research in this area. We recently explored this in research with women who do not currently drink and who self-reported a history of problems with alcohol use. We conducted in depth interviews with women (n=15) who participated in the online ‘positive sobriety’ community on Instagram, as an alternative to traditional AA 12-step and mutual aid support programmes.
Managing the omnipresence of alcohol marketing, and female targeted content, in everyday experiences of sobriety
Positive online sobriety communities tend to be female focussed, and emphasise the positives of not drinking, in ways that counter the messages commonly promoted by the alcohol industry. Women were hyperaware of the omnipresence of alcohol marketing in everyday life, and engaged in many tactics (e.g. ad blocks, avoiding alcohol aisles in supermarkets), particularly in the early stages of sobriety, to reduce their exposure to marketing, in case it affected their abstinence.
In the words of Macy (names have been changed), one of our interviewees, during her time drinking she felt she had been in ‘the alcohol Matrix’, and since she had stopped drinking, felt ‘unplugged’ and ‘tuned in’ to the extent to which alcohol is marketed in society.
Three main female targeted marketing messages were discussed, and these were thought to impact drinking, lived experience and sense of self. Women negotiated and countered these messages in their online content and discussions of sobriety.
Firstly, associations between alcohol use and motherhood were regarded as particularly problematic. Women referred to ‘Mummy wine culture’ as a feminine trend of concern that was encouraged by alcohol marketing and wider consumer goods industries (e.g. glasses and greetings cards), as well as publicly generated content on social media (e.g. alcohol-related content created and posted by consumers, including mothers and motherhood ‘influencers’).
Those who were mothers discussed how the stresses of motherhood had contributed to their own problematic drinking, and how motherhood marketing that (indirectly) presented alcohol use as a way to relieve stress and as a reward for parenting, had normalised and provided a justification for their drinking.
Marketing that normalises drinking within the identity of mother was also regarded as having led to the perception that alcohol use was an act of empowerment, and as a way to reclaim their independence from their new identity as a ‘mum’.
Secondly, friendship-based marketing, that presented alcohol use as integral to female friendship, was regarded as having prolonged their problematic drinking and impacting their experiences of sobriety. Such messaging had fed into their perception that drinking was essential to female bonding and friendships, and as framing drinking as crucial to being labelled as a ‘fun’ person.
Many discussed the association between alcohol and friendship as a barrier to reducing their drinking or attempting sobriety, due to fears of being labelled ‘boring,’ ‘missing out’ and losing friends. Such marketing had made their sobriety more difficult, particularly in the early stages, and led to feelings of exclusion in social situations.
Women now used their online content to counter such messaging, by presenting sobriety as ‘fun’ (i.e. ‘sober not boring’), and the community as a source of female friendship. Whilst some had not consumed no and low alcohol products at the beginning of their abstinence due to a fear of being triggered to drink, all had tried to manage this sense of exclusion by consuming these products and ‘mocktails’. This allowed them to disguise their non-drinking in the initial stages of abstention and was used to deflect questions from others about the reasons for not drinking, and the risk being labelled an ‘alcoholic’. These drinks helped them to create a sense of inclusion, whilst remaining in control of their sobriety.
Lastly, reflecting on their past relationship with alcohol, women discussed how marketing that associated alcohol use with female empowerment, had influenced their drinking through informing their perceptions that drinking was an empowering act, and an expression of an empowered femininity.
Some expressed an initial loss of empowerment when first becoming sober and a desire to maintain the youthful carefree identity they had acquired through their drinking and related lifestyles. Yet on reflection, the impact of drinking on their sense of self and mental health, was discussed as being disempowering.
This contrasted the depictions of drinking and female empowerment in marketing. In contrast to marketing messages, sobriety and its expression and celebration within the positive sobriety community, was viewed as an act of ‘empowerment’ itself. Not only did they use these platforms to challenge such gendered connotations and social norms that marketing perpetuates, but they also used them to address the stigma that were felt to be reinforced by traditional AA 12 step approaches, such as the concept of having to reach ‘rock bottom’, and the negative stereotype of the ‘alcoholic’ who was powerless over alcohol.
Our research highlights that alcohol marketing that normalises alcohol use in society and depicts drinking as important to womanhood, acts as a barrier to sobriety and must be negotiated by women who do not drink.
The women we spoke to were affected and angered by these marketing messages. Whilst most women were at a place in their sobriety where they felt they were able to manage abstinence, they had been, and to some extent still were, particularly vulnerable to gendered marketing messages.
There are evidence-based policies that could be implemented to help people with problematic alcohol use and people in recovery, including restrictions on alcohol marketing. These would also help address the impact of marketing on children and young people, and alcohol use and related harms at the population level.
The Scottish Government recently launched a consultation on ‘Restricting alcohol advertising and promotion’ and, as our research found, acknowledges the impact of marketing on problematic users and those in recovery. Whilst the industry may contend that individualised approaches are effective in addressing use among vulnerable populations, the evidence base shows that approaches that address the commercial determinants of use and harm are crucial in addressing the direct and indirect harms of alcohol. With restrictions of alcohol marketing being one of the World Health Organization’s evidence based ‘best buys’, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Written by Dr Amanda Atkinson, Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University.
All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.